by Pamela Davenport
On a recent visit to Somerset, I rediscovered the beautiful Quantock Hills, which are characterised by deeply wooded combes and wonderful heathland covered with heather, and are truly deserving of their designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Visiting Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey made me think again about Coleridge as both man and poet, and about his relationship with Sarah Fricker, his wife.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that most women in the 18th and 19th centuries were defined by the men in their lives, and in many ways Sara Coleridge was no different, dropping the “H” from her first name to please her husband, giving him constant support as his addiction spiralled out of control, and putting up with his various infatuations with other women. There must have been times when Sara thought there were three people in her marriage, most infamously another ‘Sarah’ – Sarah Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, an enduring object of Coleridge’s unrequited passion and the ‘Asra’ of some of his finest poems. But Sara Coleridge’s inner strength and resilience sustained her as she struggled to bring up her children virtually single-handed, and often on the edge of poverty.
Born in 1770, Sarah was the eldest of the three Fricker sisters. They were city girls – elegant, educated and emancipated. Byron sarcastically referred to her and her sister Edith as “two milliners from Bath” – ‘milliner’ was contemporary shorthand for an immoral woman. It was also a rather patronising reference to the fact that both girls had been forced to earn their living as seamstresses when their father’s business failed.
Soon after Coleridge first met Sarah he wrote to Robert Southey (who was already engaged to Edith) saying of Sarah, ” Yes – Southey – you are right…. I certainly love her. I think of her incessantly and with unspeakable tenderness…” Not long afterwards he wrote ‘The Kiss’ for her:
Too well those lovely lips disclose
The triumphs of the opening rose,
O fair! O graceful! I bid them prove
As passive to the breath of Love….
In October 1795, after his wedding, Coleridge wrote, “On Sunday I was married…united to the woman whom I love best of all created Beings …Mrs Coleridge – MRS. COLERIDGE – I like to write the name”.
But by 1804 they were separated, and when Coleridge wrote to his brother he laid all the blame on Sara: “The few friends who have been Witnesses of my domestic life have long advised separation as the necessary condition of everything desirable for me – nor does Mrs Coleridge herself state or pretend to any objection on the score of attachment to me; that will not look respectable for her, is the sum into which all her objections resolve themselves”.
Despite the opinions of Coleridge’s ‘Witnesses’, Sara herself may well have had a different view. During the 40 years of their marriage, Coleridge never made enough money to support his growing family. The relationship was, at best, an off-and-on one, and Coleridge only lived with Sara for less than six of those 40 years. Even when they were together, he was constantly complaining of various illnesses, consuming ever-increasing quantities of opium, and spending a lot of time in bed. When they first arrived at Nether Stowey, Coleridge wrote to his friend Tom Poole, that “ I mean to work very hard – as cook, butler, scullion, shoe cleaner, occasional nurse, gardener, hind pig protector, chaplain, secretary, poet review…I shall keep no servant, and shall cultivate my land acre and my wise-acres as well as I can….” But though this period at Stowey was to produce some of Coleridge’s finest poetry, the dream of domestic bliss soon died, and it was Sara who ended up doing most of the drudgery.
As time went on, Coleridge spent more time with Wordsworth and his family than with his own. As well as taking care of a damp and vermin-infested cottage, an often bedridden husband, and a new baby, Sara now had a lodger as well, Charles Lloyd. While Coleridge indulged in long walks on the Quantocks and all-night discussions with other notable radicals, Sara was left to cope with the demands of everyday living and a growing number of children. The water required for cooking, cleaning and washing had to be drawn from the well in the yard and heated over the open fire, where stews, pottage and boiled puddings were also cooked. Sara made light meals, like Coleridge’ favourite toasted cheese, over the fire in the second parlour, but with no cooking range, Sara had to take pies and meat for roasting to the local baker to be cooked.
Life did become a little easier for Sara in January 1798, when the Wedgwood brothers offered Coleridge an annuity for life of £150 a year. At least the tradesmen’s bills could now be paid. But by May that year, the Quantocks idyll was beginning to unravel: the Wordsworths decided to return to the Lake District and Coleridge began to realise that he would never make his fortune in rural Nether Stowey. He began to plan a walking tour with the Wordsworths to Germany to widen his knowledge of philosophy and theology. The initial intention was that Sara would join the tour, but this idea was shelved after the birth of her second son, Berkeley, rendered it impractical. Coleridge certainly seems to have missed his wife during this prolonged absence:
Good night my dear dear Sara – every night when I go to bed & every morning when I rise I will think of you with a yearning love, & of my blessed Babies! – Once more my dear Sara! Good night.
When he received the news that baby Berkeley had died in February 1799, Coleridge was distraught, but it was Sara who’d had to cope alone. “I am his mother, and have carried him in my arms and have fed him at my bosom, and have watched over him day and night for nine months: I have seen him twice at the brink of the grave but he has returned, and recovered and smiled upon me like an angel – and now I am lamenting that he is gone”. But Coleridge did not hurry home as Sara had hoped- it was July before Coleridge returned to England, and even then he went to London rather than to his wife.
When he did finally return to Stowey, Coleridge found it cramped and unappealing: “Our little Hovel is almost afloat – poor Sara tired off her legs with servanting – the house stinks of Sulphur … I however, sunk in Spinoza, remain as undisturbed as a Toad in a Rock”. He soon decided to share a house with Robert Southey and his wife, Sara’s sister, and one motive for the move may have been to salvage his own marriage. Sara packed up their possessions and the family moved to Greta Hall near Keswick, near to Grasmere where the Wordsworths lived. But Coleridge’s opium habit was soon taking over his life, and even his friendship with Wordsworth became strained.
In 1804, Coleridge accepted the post of secretary to the Governor of Malta, believing the warm weather would improve his health, and he left England and Sara for what turned out to be a two-year absence. He and Sara finally separated in 1808, and Sara was forced to move in with her sister and brother-in-law, an arrangement which endured for 29 years. She finally achieved some degree of independence, living first with her son Derwent when he took orders, then permanently with her daughter Sara, after she delivered her first child in 1820.
After years without any communications – or financial support – Sara renewed her contact with Coleridge in the last years of his life. He died in 1833, aged 61, having lived for the previous 17 years with the surgeon and apothecary James Gillman, who tried to control his opium habit. Sara died in London, in 1845.
Pamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings including the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on social Care Values in Practice, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.